Professional hockey is not only surviving, but thriving since the Blues’ departure.
When the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) season kicks off this October 21st at Carver Arena, it will mark the beginning of the 35th consecutive season of professional hockey in Peoria. That stands as the eighth-longest active streak of continuous operation of minor pro hockey in a single market—and current Rivermen owner Bart Rogers has seen it all.
Keeping the Franchise
From the now-defunct International Hockey League to the ECHL, and from the American Hockey League to the SPHL, the Rivermen brand has survived happy times as well as dark days. Rogers, who began his career with the IHL Rivermen in 1992 as an unpaid intern while studying at Western Illinois University, says that the support of fans and sponsors alike is what has allowed the Rivermen to continue to thrive through numerous league and affiliation changes over the years.
“We’ve been blessed here in Peoria for so many years to have great fans [and] great sponsors,” Rogers says. “We’re able to keep going and continue with all the great things that we have—no matter what level of play we have here.”
While Peoria’s movements up and down the ladder of minor pro hockey leagues have been met with mixed reviews, the most recent transition from the AHL to the SPHL has been a particularly difficult one. The Rivermen were the AHL affiliate and top farm team of the St. Louis Blues from the 2005-06 season until March 29, 2013, when the Blues organization sold the franchise to the Vancouver Canucks. When Vancouver decided to relocate the franchise elsewhere for the 2013-14 season, sudden action was needed to keep a professional hockey franchise in Peoria.
“It’s a funny story,” recalls Rogers. “I was on a beach in Destin, Florida on spring break with my family, and I woke up to my phone ringing off the hook and emails coming at me that there was no longer going to be a Peoria Rivermen hockey team—that the Blues had decided to sell the franchise and were not going to play there [the following] year.”
“We had calls from the general manager at the [Peoria] Civic Center asking for help. At the time, I was managing the U.S. Cellular Coliseum [in Bloomington], and I reached out to my partner, [former Rivermen President] John Butler, and we talked it over. We both had a rich history of working here with the Rivermen. We wanted to make sure that what we had worked so hard for wasn’t going to be gone forever in the flip of a switch.”
Bringing It All Back Home
With the ECHL’s deadline for new teams to enter already passed for the year, Rogers, Butler and their group applied for entry into the SPHL for both the Rivermen and the Bloomington Blaze of the struggling Central Hockey League, renaming them the Bloomington Thunder. While the Thunder survived just one season in the SPHL before being replaced by a junior team of the same name in the USHL, the Rivermen have continued to thrive in Peoria, leading the league in average attendance over the last two seasons at 3,985 fans per game.
Having experienced a Rivermen franchise move from the Class AAA International Hockey League down to the Class AA ECHL in 1996, Rogers calls the 2013 transition from the AHL to the SPHL “eerily the same.”
“Of course, you’re always going to have your naysayers who will say they’re not going because the level of play isn’t Triple-A hockey,” Rogers says. “But if you look at the attendance numbers, the financials tend to show that maybe Peoria didn’t enjoy Triple-A hockey from the casual fan’s standpoint. Higher-level hockey means higher-level prices and a higher level of everything—and I think we have a price point here in our marketplace that we always have to be cognizant of. When we bought the team and purchased the SPHL franchise to come back, we were able to bring a lot of those prices back in line so we can do great promotions and things that get the casual fans out.”
On the ice, the Rivermen have captured back-to-back regular season championships in the SPHL, including a trip to the President’s Cup finals in 2016. Off the ice, that play has translated to the league’s best attendance over the past two seasons.
“We’re on a good ride. We’re at the top of the mountain both on and off the ice, and looking for great things in the future,” says Rogers, continuing to praise the support of the local fan base and corporate partners. “We can’t do it by ourselves: we need local partnerships and season ticketholders to continue the brand and carry on the longstanding longevity of the franchise.”
The Rivermen have been in business for 35 years, and from the looks of things, that won’t be changing anytime soon. iBi
Brad Kupiec is Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations for the Peoria Rivermen.